D&D General Druids and Path Dependency: Why the Scimitar Helps Illuminate D&D

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
In another thread, people are having a great discussion about what, exactly, a D&D (5e) scimitar really is. Like many D&Disms, the inclusion of scimitars is ... well, it's certainly a choice. But reading the thread, I saw a great comment by @Gradine ...

They're swords that druids can use

I mean ... yeah! That's exactly right! In 5e, Druids are allowed the following weapons:
Clubs, daggers, darts, javelins, maces, quarterstaffs, scimitars, sickles, slings, spears

But while everyone knows that Druids and scimitars go together like Bards and, um, pushing Bards into pits filled with green slime, the more interesting question is ... why? And what does this mean for D&D?

1. The History of the Druid and the Scimitar.
The druid abides.

The Druid first appeared as a monster ... that's right, a monster ... in OD&D. Playing the game in Wisconsin, Dennis Sustare (of Bunnies and Burrows fame) wanted to create his own, playable Druid class that focuses on plants and animals ... something that wasn't based in any fantasy literature but was more based in his understanding of the literature about early (Celtic) Britain and Ireland. Some kind of imagined proto-Romano Celtic people. Now, there's a whole 'nother (and I think very interesting!) conversation about the ways in which those largely incorrect myths from the Romans informed, and were informed by, the nascent enviromentalist movement of the 60s and early 70s, but that's neither here nor there.

Anyway, Sustare made his class, and the Druid class made its way to Gygax and was published in Eldritch Wizardry. The weapons, at the time, were listed as the following:
Daggers, sickle or crescent-shaped swords, spears, slings, and oil. (EW p. 2).

Why sickles and crescent-shaped swords? Well, to harvest mistletoe! Next, when the Druid was codified into AD&D (1e), we see something that starts to look very familiar for their weapons:
Club, Dagger, Dart, Hammer, Scimitar, Sling, Spear, Staff. (PHB p. 19).

Now the immediate question is ... why the switch? Two reasons ...
1. The PHB in 1e contained a scimitar, but not a sickle.
2. As Gygax put it, "Heh, It is because the scimitar is as close a sword weapon I could come up with to match the druids' mistletoe-harvesting sickle."

Notably, the druid is the only class that specifically allowed for the scimitar in 1e, and with d8/d8 damage, it was easily the best choice for many. The scimitar became associated with Druids as an iconic class weapon, and it persisted throughout the editions.

2. But What is the Druid, Really?
I'm the Druid, so that's what you call me. That or, uh, His Druidness, or uh, Druider, or El Druiderino, if you're not into the whole brevity thing

Classes are always a weird concept. The Druid, though ... that's a tough one. At heart, we can agree on the core of the Druid- the Druid is the class that explodes when it puts on metal armor. But other than that, what is it, really?

Essentially, the Druid has become a hodgepodge of D&Disms. It's the class with shapeshifting, and it's the nature cleric (but not, um, the Cleric of the Nature Domain). It's the class with a shillelagh and a scimitar. It's a class that doesn't wear metal armor based on (largely) discredited Roman stories about Britain, but primarily uses a metal weapon mostly associated with the Middle East and South Asia (and, if you're including cutlasses, Pirates, ARGHHH!).

And while there are some fantasy druids in literature (Radagast the Brown, the Forrestals of the Land), they are not a common archetype. And yet, here they are in 5e (and likely 5.5e) continuing to run around, swingin' their scimitars.

3. Path Dependency and the Scimitar
Nobody calls me Nature Cleric, you got the wrong guy, I’m the Druid, man.

What is path dependency? For those not familiar with the term, the easiest way to explain it is, for example, the internal combustion engine and automobiles. If you were designing a transportation system, from scratch, today, you could probably think of a lot of better ways to do it than to use cars (that require pavement, highways, parking, etc., that all require maintenance) and gas-powered ICE (that comes with its own issues). However, once you start down that path, it becomes harder and harder to switch; the transaction costs to switching to something "better" are so high, that it is very very difficult to do so, even though it might not have been the optimal choice if starting from scratch. It's not enough for something to be better- it has to be really, really, really better. If that example doesn't work for you, think about why we aren't all using the DVORAK keyboard.

And this path dependency is why we have a lot of D&Disms as well. If you could go back in time, and you had perfect knowledge, you'd probably design a lot of things differently. But when you see the history, it becomes obvious- why do Druids use scimitars? Druids use scimitars because they were meant to use sickles to harvest mistletoe. And since there weren't sickles in the 1e PHB table, they got scimitars instead.

And now when we look at it, we can say that scimitars are ... the swords Druids use. But understanding this history brings us to a more interesting issue, which, perhaps, we can analyze in the following way; knowing that this is a mistake, what should be done?

That's the interesting issue with this, and many other, D&Disms. We have had multiple generations of gamers since 1977 (the publication of the PHB) grow up associating the Druid (which is a made up D&D class) with the Scimitar (which, as others note, is probably not historically associated with pre-Roman Britain) to the extent that it is an iconic weapon for that class. Is it better to continue down that path and keep reifying that D&Dism, or to break from that idea?

The reason that the Druid/Scimitar is interesting to look at is that it avoids a great deal of the baggage that similar issues do- primarily, do you keep returning to classic D&D tropes, or do you believe that it is better to break with them, and how do you make that determination?

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James Gasik

Pandion Knight
Some D&D-ism's are so ingrained that a lot of people don't think it's D&D without them. I mean, I know people who still make frowny faces about getting rid of Thac0 (or even worse, attack matrices)!

A lot of text (and before the internet, ink) has been used to debate the basic question of what D&D classes even are, and what they should be. Druids aren't alone here- just look at how Rangers, Barbarians, and Monks have changed over the years.

Weapons have always been somewhat absurd in D&D, and that shows no sign of ever stopping. I think on the topic of scimitars, there's a second reason why they stick around, besides Druids.

There's that kind of popular Drow Ranger, after all.


Not your screen monkey (he/him)
There's that kind of popular Drow Ranger, after all.
And, of course, Bröl, the scimitar wielding half-ogre warrior, long on muscle, short on brain.

What? You don't know Bröl? Let me tell you a story. We had obtained a map to a powerful magic source that would allow a cult of Hadur-Xucalani to free their Lord of the Pit so he could walk on mortal lands. In fact, we had stolen it from the cult and were trying to get there first. They were hot on our trail, led by a sorceress as beautiful as she was evil.
One night, she approached the camp when Bröl was on watch.
In the morning, the rest of us discovered that we had been visited and that Bröl had given her the map. So we confronted him.
Party: You did what?!?
Bröl: Gave her the map.
Party: Why did you give her the map?
Bröl: She kissed me.
Party: You had better have gotten more than just a kiss for that map.
Bröl: ??... There's more?
Party: You stupid half-ogre!

And the legend was made.

First off, props for mentioning Forrestals. If someone wanted a great fictional example of a druid in fiction, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever is a great resource. Not just the Forrestals, but the Rhadhamaerl and Hirebrands, and indeed, the very way the people treat The Land.

The Shannara series has druids, but the term's usage there doesn't real match D&D's at all. They're more of just wizards than anything nature-related.

Though, my first exposure to a druid had to be Getafix, from the tales of Asterix the Gaul:


But as for the D&D druid, it's really become a palimpsest, moving from a hodgepodge of history, some inaccurate, and "close enoughs," to a class repeatedly redesigned and refined. Like a lot of D&D tropes, it started off inspired by a couple different ones, then became its own trope.


B/X Known World
Challenging moderation
Good to have you back. Hope you got the apology you clearly deserved.

I’m not sure path dependency is really an issue for swapping out the scimitar for a sickle now. There’s just no real knock-on effect to removing it from the druid. I see path dependency as more akin to the difficulties of changing armor to damage reduction rather than being harder to hit or replacing Vancian casting, for example. There’s just too many other things that would need to change for these to happen and the question of the game still feeling like D&D. That’s not the case with a druid using a scimitar or not.

I’m fine with the nature cleric and land druid niche overlap. Though I think they should refocus the druid a bit and make circle of the moon default to all druids. It’s their unique thing. Let it shine. Though having to deal with animal stats and game breaking combos is tedious.

It’s basically impossible to make the druid more historically accurate as there are no surviving records from the Celts about druids from a time when druids still existed. Oral tradition and not writing things down and all that. What little we know about them comes from the Romans and that’s of dubious historicity. Though we could go with the myths and legends surrounding druids instead…but I think that leads us right back to where we are now. And most post-1977 depictions of druids in fantasy media are lifted straight from AD&D.

If we were to switch druids up, I’d want the designers to look at World of Warcraft and Dungeon World as inspiration. Centering shapeshifting as the main draw and the spellcasting as a nice bonus.
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I'm not too worried about Druids not being based on history. D&D classes should never be based on history, but on LEGEND. Monks should be able to stand on the top of trees like Crouching Tiger and Ninjas should be able to actually disappear in a puff of smoke. Fighters (at higher levels) should go all Hercules and Beowulf.

Actually, speaking of the (at higher levels) caveat: My personal IDEAL D&D would have a very low-magic gritty game at low-levels (say, to six or so), followed by what we normally get magic-wise for the mid-levels, and a totally gonzo demi-god superhero fest for the top tier.


I always thought scimitars were off brand/theme for them as druids, but it lets them be turned into more unbranded weird nature/forest paladins.

I played one PC druid that way. Scimitar as sword for the crusading nature divine knight champion who hunted the unnatural. Very little Celtic connection.

I also had a character concept of using the druid with scimitar build to make a viking pirate who learned Vanir/Alfar magic.


I like reskinning druids to be a type of shaman, or witch, or Merlin type concept, or Bjornaer mages from Ars magica, or other concepts.

I find the actual druid descriptions throughout D&D editions particularly lacking on their narrative specifics.

Eberron did a nice job though on developing some neat druid traditions and I really like the OGL Scarred Land druid traditions where they are tied to primordial elemental titans while clerics are tied to gods.
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Wouldn't a khopesh have better fit a "sickle" than a scimitar? And why couldn't Gygax have just added in a sickle as a weapon?


Wouldn't a khopesh have better fit a "sickle" than a scimitar? And why couldn't Gygax have just added in a sickle as a weapon?
When Gygax included a sword Khopesh as a separate weapon in 1e Unearthed Arcana they were added to the druid allowed weapon list too.

I assume a Khopesh would be covered by the sickle-sword, etc. in pre-unearthed arcana 1e scimitars.

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